In the way

What is it about cycling in front of motor vehicles that makes for an unpleasant experience?

This is a pertinent question in the light of a number of related issues – principally, how we should go about designing for cycling (and the design of the public realm in general), but also how we should train people to cycle, how cycling and motoring should work as distinct modes of transport, and how advances in car technology might affect cycling.

The last issue relates to driverless cars. Last week saw the release of an official Department for Transport review into this technology. This review was rumoured to contain suggestions that the Highway Code may need to be changed, rumours encapsulated by this rather strange Daily Telegraph article on Tuesday –

The Highway Code may need to be re-written to stop driverless cars from bringing Britain’s city centres to a halt, an official review will say.

Passing distances between cyclists and pedestrians may have to be changed to prevent robot vehicles clogging up roads across the country. Under the current Highway Code, drivers are expected to leave as much room as they would leave for a car when overtaking cyclists. There are fears driverless cars could be left crawling behind cyclists for miles as they wait for enough space to overtake if the rules are not changed.

The implication here being that driverless cars programmed to obey the rules set out in the Highway Code – and thus programmed to overtake in accordance with the Highway Code, moving entirely into the next lane to overtake, as per Rule 163 – will cause gridlock.

Rule 163

Rule 163

I’m not entirely sure whether this is true, of course. Opportunities to overtake properly do present themselves, and if they are absent (when traffic is that heavy), then issues of delay and inconvenience are probably being caused by an excess of motor traffic. In urban areas, being genuinely stuck behind someone cycling at 10-15 miles an hour might only amount to arriving at the next red light, or queue of motor traffic, slightly later.

But equally it may be true that motorists will be delayed in many instances, stuck behind people cycling – which isn’t particularly attractive for either mode, as will be discussed below.

As it turns out, the DfT Review itself didn’t contain any of this speculation, only the mild

The Highway Code may need to be updated in due course to take into account the use of highly automated vehicles on the roads. It may be necessary to wait until experience has been gained with these vehicles and possibly research has been conducted into the interactions between such vehicles and other road users.

… with no mention of gridlock, ‘clogging’, ‘crawling’, or overtaking.

Nevertheless, this issue of how driverless cars will behave does raise broader issues of policy, and about how cycling should be designed for. The discussion actually draws into focus the fact that something is already fundamentally wrong with the way our roads and streets accommodate cycling and driving, even with our current low levels of cycling. Putting cycling and driving in the same space on main roads simply makes no sense at a strategic level – both modes of transport will impede each other, in different ways.

For instance, if we are aiming for cycling to be a mode of transport accessible to anyone, this will inevitably mean that cycling will increasingly be dominated by people who are cycling more slowly than those who are cycling at present. Does it make sense to place these people in front of motor traffic, either from the perspective of the person driving, or of the person pedalling in front of them? Equally, does it make sense to place queues of motor traffic in the way of people cycling?

These are issues that are already emerging in relation to cycling in bus lanes. Tentative research suggests that with increasing cycling levels, putting buses and cycling in the same space simply won’t work, for either mode – a problem recognised by Transport for London themselves

with or without the Cycle Vision investment – population growth, increased cycling levels and increased traffic flows are likely to result in delays occurring for general traffic and buses in central London (if not mitigated). [my emphasis]

More research is obviously required, but even from a ‘common sense’ standpoint, it is plain that high cycling levels in bus lanes are incompatible with an efficient bus service. Buses should be travelling at smooth speeds between bus stops; that’s not going to be possible if bus lanes are clogged with people cycling at slower speeds. (This is to say nothing of the inconvenience and unpleasantness from the perspective of the person cycling).

I suspect that these kinds of issues – both cycling in bus lanes, and the broader issue of cycling with motor traffic – have not been addressed until now principally because cycling has been such a minority mode of transport – with so few people cycling – its impacts on other traffic didn’t need to be considered.

But equally it is likely that the issues have been ignored because our highway engineers have expected people cycling to behave like motor traffic, and also because our politicians, planners and engineers are seemingly happy to completely ignore the needs of those who are not willing or able to cycle like motor traffic – those people who aren’t cycling, but want to. Dishonesty about the fact that cycling and motoring are entirely different modes of transport is politically convenient. The ‘driverless car issue’ is exposing some of that dishonesty, even if the issues and problems are being exaggerated for journalistic effect.

I’ve already written about how the reactions to driverless car technology – both from cycling campaigners, and from those with an interest in driving – will be entirely different in the Netherlands, principally because this is a country that, sensibly, already treats cycling and driving as distinct modes of transport. Consistent application of the principles of sustainable safety – homogeneity of mass, speed and direction, in particular – means that it does not really make any difference who is driving motor vehicles, humans or computers. Cycling and driving are separated from each other where it matters, and only mixed where it doesn’t.

Cycling separated from motor traffic on through roads

Cycling separated from motor traffic on through roads

Cycling is only mixed with driving in low traffic areas, access roads where policy has limited or removed through traffic

… And only mixed with driving in low traffic areas, access roads where policy has limited or removed through traffic

In short, cycling is not in the way of driving, and driving is not in the way of cycling.

Consequently the issues that are provoking discussion in Britain are absent. With or without the presence of driverless cars, the Dutch system is one we should moving towards, simply because it makes sense. Not only does it make cycling (and indeed driving) considerably safer, it also makes both these modes of transport easier and more pleasant. In particular, from a cycling perspective, interactions with motor vehicles are minimised or even eliminated, and that makes a big difference to how enjoyable it is to cycle around.

The contrast with Britain could not be more stark, where something called the ‘primary position’ is official cycle training policy – a policy that explicitly involves cycling in front of motor vehicles, not because this is attractive or pleasant, but in an attempt to mitigate the consequences of bad road design.

To take just one of a million potential examples up and down the country, cycling in the ‘primary position’ on Pall Mall, below, is, thanks to a crappy new design, an absolute necessity. Failing to do so means you risk being squeezed against parked vehicles by overtaking traffic, and/or being ‘doored’. The only safe way to cycle here is to put yourself in front of drivers, deliberately stopping them from overtaking.

Cycling in front of motor vehicles is a safe strategy here

Cycling directly  in front of motor vehicles is the only safe strategy here.

This isn’t good for cycling, or for driving. Forcing people to cycle ‘in the way’ of people driving to keep themselves safe is not good policy.

This design on Pall Mall is probably only accidentally awful – I doubt whether the engineers seriously considered how cycling would even work on this street. Yet placing people in front of motor traffic on main roads continues to be a deliberate feature of new street design.

We have public realm designers –  in reference to designs that explicitly place motorists behind people cycling – describing those people cycling as ‘lock gates… effectively monitoring the speed of motor traffic.‘ That is – putting people in the way.

And, more recently, Urban Design London published guidance, suggesting that

Integrating cycling into narrower carriageways can encourage all road users to engage better with each other. This can also help retain a constant, but slower, traffic flow

Again, deliberately placing people in the way, to slow traffic.

There is some logic here – let’s put a slow mode of transport in front of a faster one, and attempt to prevent that faster one from overtaking the slower one, in order to slow down the faster one – but important issues appear to be being ducked completely. Mainly

  • whether this deliberate mixing approach is actually any safer than one that separates cycling from driving on main roads
  • how attractive it might be for the person cycling to be placed in front of motor traffic (and indeed what proportion of the population are even willing to cycle in this way)
  • how ethical it is to use people as a traffic calming device, rather than – say – physical measures
  • whether these kinds of designs actually foster frustration and resentment, instead of allowing people to ‘engage better’

I’ve already touched upon the Dutch approach of sustainable safety, which seeks to reduce the severity of collisions by aiming towards homogeneity (or uniformity) of mass and momentum (and direction). Fast objects, and heavy objects, should not be sharing the same road space as slower ones, or lighter ones. By contrast, ‘mixing’ cycling with objects that carry considerably greater mass and momentum can have disastrous consequences.

The unattractiveness of cycling directly in front of motor traffic rests not just with the innate uncomfortableness of being in front of a large heavy object that can do you harm. Psychologically, I don’t think anyone likes to be ‘in the way’ – causing inconvenience or delay to others. Just as it is natural to want to be able to make progress on foot, or on bike, or while driving, so the flip side of that coin, for empathetic human beings, is that it is natural to feel uncomfortable at obstructing the progress of others. Even if we could persuade the general population that it’s a good idea to cycle in front of motor traffic, it would be very hard to persuade them that it is actually enjoyable or pleasant, for these reasons.

We can already see this at play in those (allegedly) ‘shared space’ streets that function as through routes. Here, despite the obvious design intention of encouraging pedestrians to walk freely where they want, the subjective unpleasantness of walking in front of motor traffic, coupled presumably with an unwillingness to obstruct drivers, leads almost inevitably to streets that are not really shared at all – streets that function like conventional streets, albeit with pretty paving.

Not much sharing. It's easier and more pleasant to walk where you are not in the way

Not much sharing. It’s easier and more pleasant to walk where you are not in the way

People on foot, or on bike, do not take too kindly to being treated as traffic-calming devices. There are a whole host of measures we can employ to slow down motor traffic, that don’t involve placing people in the way of it, including

  • narrow carriageways;
  • removal of centre lines;
  • speed humps and speed tables;
  • cobbled or rough surfacing; 
  • small radius corners;
  • introducing corners, or bends;

And so on. Beyond these self-reinforcing measures, we can even employ enforcement of existing speed limits. These measures involve physical objects and design (and potential conflict with other motor vehicles) to slow drivers down, rather than potential conflict with soft, squishy and unprotected human beings.

Finally, there is the question of whether this kind of approach – deliberately placing people in the way – actually achieves the kind of harmony and good feeling it is purported to. Rather than creating a calm environment, having to trundle behind someone cycling ‘in the way’ could actually foster resentment and frustration, leading to hostile (and potentially dangerous) driving.

So for all these reasons, we should be endeavouring to treat cycling as a distinct mode of transport, with its own network, separate from a driving network, to reduce the extent to which these two modes of transport are ‘in the way’ of each other.

But unfortunately Britain has something of a problematic legacy among cycle campaigners, in that measures to separate out conflict between driving and cycling are framed as getting cycling out of the way of driving, or a ‘surrender’ of the road network. These issues have been covered before at length in that post, and also in this one by David Arditti. At root is an almost umbilical tethering of cycling as a mode of transport with the convenience of motoring; every kind of policy with regard to cycling is viewed through the prism of how it might affect driving.

But this is actually really quite unhelpful, especially when it results in a failure to focus clearly on the kinds of policies that would actually make cycling more attractive to ordinary people. Being ‘in the way’ of motoring is not attractive.

Nor does this kind of attitude make any kind of sense. We don’t think this way in relation to other modes of transport, beyond cycling. We don’t consider how to design for walking through the prism of how it might affect driving; we simply go about creating good routes that feel safe, are convenient, and attractive. The potential impacts on driving of these walking environments are neither here nor there, nor should they be. We don’t think about the fact that walking might be ‘out of the way’ of motoring, because that’s a nonsensical way of looking at things. Walking can be prioritised, even if it is ‘out of the way’.

And precisely the same is true of cycling. We are seeing, with the tremendous political battles to get the first major cycling routes built on main roads in central London, that separating cycling from driving on these roads is itself a way of prioritising cycling, even if this mode is ‘out of the way’ of driving. Not only is capacity for motor vehicles being reduced, but also cycling will become a smoother and more direct mode of transport, absent from conflict with motor traffic, and with reduced delay. No longer being ‘in the way’ is actually beneficial, even if we don’t consider the added benefits of greatly improved safety, and comfort.

The tremendous breakthrough represented by these routes in London is an emergence of designing for cycling in its own right; considering what intervention is required for cycling on each and every road or street to make cycling a viable mode of transport for everyone. On many streets (perhaps the great majority) this will involve changing their nature; turning them into access roads, rather than through roads. But on others – the roads that remain as through routes – it will inevitably involve separating cycling from driving. Treating cycling a distinct mode of transport isn’t anything to do with being in, or out of, the way.

This entry was posted in Cycling policy, Infrastructure, London, Shared Space, Subjective safety, Sustainable Safety, The Netherlands. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to In the way

  1. ORiordan says:

    “We don’t consider how to design for walking through the prism of how it might affect driving..” hmmm… I would say design of walking routes very much does consider how it might affect driving hence you get crossings placed where they won’t inconvenience drivers rather than the desire line for walkers, sheep pens in the middle of the roads to herd the people on foot and the timing of signals.

  2. fred says:

    Ok. Just last night. Cycling here, I take the lane, because there’s no room for a car, and a bike, and an open car door…

    A driver comes up behind me fast, hoots , revs. I don’t yield coming up to the roundabout. Exiting, she hoots, revs some more, through here:

    Then, coming up to here – there’s one taxi in the rank, and the light is red. She overtakes through the taxi rank, with no space, and cuts back in (to avoid hitting the taxi) so I have to swerve violently left to avoid her, then she brakes sharply to avoid hitting the car in front of her at the light. Luckily, I’m already waiting for her to do something really stupid, it has happened before here, so I’m fine.

    Training’s all you need, people. Just learn to take the lane and you (and your children) will be fine.

  3. Andy Clarke says:

    A excellent post. We certainly are living in interesting times.

  4. severs1966 says:

    The bizarre initial premise that robo-cars will cause gridlock seems to suggest that this will be caused by them obeying the letter of the highway code.

    There is not currently the type of gridlock predicted, and therefore, by implication, one assumes that human-piloted cars must be almost never obeying the letter of the highway code.

    Am I missing something, or is the starting assumption one which is an implicit admission that current driving standards are unsafe and inadequate?

  5. Notak says:

    Firstly, it’s true, obviously, that cycling ‘in the way of’ motor traffic is unpleasant for almost everyone. Secondly, I wanted to say what O’Riordan has already said above – that walking is most definitely made to be as little inconvenient as possible to drivers, rather than as convenient as possible to people on foot. This is common to many countries around the world – first world, third world – and in Britain (and elsewhere) is also sadly characteristic of cycling facilities; witness the way that those painted lanes are not (whatever the standards might say) a certain width measured from the road edge but instead often taken from the centre line, narrowing where the road narrows, in order not to encroach on ‘car space’.

    Unfortunately, this also points out what I find dubious about segregation. However well it caters for people using bikes (in addition to the ‘cyclists’ who already ride!) it is considering the road as primarily a transport artery. Yes, it’s broadened the definition of transport and traffic to include non-motorised modes, but it further increases the prioritisation of transport and traffic over chatting, sitting, playing, buying and selling, kids’ football and hopscotch, and so on. Vehicular cycling might intend to defend cyclists’ right to be traffic, but does nothing to reduce the harmful effects of (motor) traffic and see streets as places.

    So does that mean shared space is the answer? If not segregation, then integration? Well, it does at least attempt to address the use of streets as places – and perhaps, if it were the norm, it would actually work. After all, it did before the age of the motor car, when paintings, photographs and descriptions show that streets were as full of people doing things as going somewhere. In practice, though, that doesn’t always seem to be what happens nowadays. Whether this is due to our having accepted the trafficisation of public streets as the norm or the speed, weight and isolation of the motor car (and its – literal – stink making other use of those spaces unpleasant?) I am not sure, but I tend towards the latter being the cause of the former and the two acting together – and causing other changes in society – as a vicious circle.

    • platinum says:

      Quite simple really – if some place is a place where people want to ‘be’, then it fundamentally cannot be the same type of place or the same road design as a transport artery. No amount of pretty paving, space sharing or placefaking ( could make it a pleasant place to be. So with transport arteries, cyclists absolutely, positively, need segregation from motor traffic because of their increased traffic volumes and/or speed limits.

      However ‘Places to be’ should, by definition, have low speed limits and low traffic volumes, which can be achieved by such things as blocking off through roads to make them resident only access or cities like Groningen make it physically impossible to drive across the city centre. All of that means that segregation is not needed in these streets at all – but it’s not ‘shared space’ or ‘integration of modes’ either!

      I don’t see it a bad thing that some streets need to be primarily designed for motor transport – it’s the reality that we all need to get from one ‘place’ to another. Better to make these types of roads well designed and efficient movers of people and goods, rather than the current hodge-podge mess we have now of throwing everyone in together and hoping for the best. Segregation of cyclists will make for better roads for motorists, and for pedestrians as well. Transport roads for motorists should be designed like teflon; place roads, should have a big barrier up then designed like covered in glue. Cyclists should have teflon everywhere, extra wormholes.

      • meltdblog says:

        Canberra (Australia) took the approach of duplicating the high speed roads of 80km/h and faster with recreational cycling/pedestrian paths, connected to the quieter streets and footpaths into the suburbs (unique in Australia with other mainland states prohibiting cyclists from using footpaths). They have the advantage of being a largely planned city so it has been well integrated to the network, suburbs avoid having through roads, and the pedestrian/bicycle network is better connected than the roads to further encourage its use. A full map is available here:
        and then some detailed but older mode share analysis:

  6. @severs1966: “Not obeying the letter…”: this would be true of any system of rules through which people coordinate their joint activities. Most rules are designed with margins of error to account for that; also, most systems of rules are not *always* workable as written, and we depend on occasion on people making common sense adjustments (when we deal with any large organization, a strict rule-follower may be a beacon of probity or a mire of pig-headed obstruction, depending on the context). Should we really be shocked – shocked!! – that this applies to the road as in other parts of our lives? (Less on the road than in some contexts, we hope, but still…) And, since a computer can be programmed to follow a rule precisely but can never be credited with common sense, it would be surprising if the best set of rules for governing robo-cars were identical to that for governing human-driven cars. Recognizing this complicates the problem of introducing robo-cars: what are the best rules of the road when some cars are driven by computers and some by humans (and when a single car may switch from one mode to the other)?

  7. @Notak: I think that your quandry would answered by a closer reading of AEARAB’s post, above, and the links given to previous posts: we need protected paths *where there is a lot of motor traffic and / or fast motor traffic*. Another way of saying this is that we need protected paths where the battle for “chatting, sitting, playing, buying and selling, kids’ football and hopscotch …” has already been lost. The Dutch solution (and have you noticed that all cyclists in London now wear wooden shoes with pointed toes?) would be to have a hierarchy of roads with through motor traffic on only a few of them; where through motor traffic is blocked, there would filtered permeability for the rest of us. Roads with just a few cars that aren’t going far don’t need protected cycle paths, and can be used for those other worthy purposes. The problem with the shared space concept, as applied in Britain, is that it’s applied to roads with lots of vehicles, and vehicles in a hurry (it seems, for instance, to have been part of the vision in the recent re-working of Green Lanes in Harringay, a highly congested segment of the A105 – you can laugh, or you can cry).

    • Notak says:

      The principle of a hierarchy of roads with varying primary purposes is almost universal. The problem I see is that the battle for chatting, etc, has been lost on even the smallest of streets, and it has been that way for at least 40 years. Back then, a much smaller me ‘tacked’ my little blue Raleigh across the whole width of the street, being either a Swallow or an Amazon; but I was only able to do this, even then, because I grew up in a street with, effectively, filtered permeability (it was a short dead-end serving only 12 houses of which about half had cars). Had I been on one of the neighbouring streets or in the brand-new estate up the road, this would not have been possible – though in practice, the new estate was and probably remains the most “place friendly” and certainly play-friendly of them all, as behind the roads is a network of paths with a variety of grassy and paved areas. Perhaps this should be considered a sort of accidental segregation?

      Now I live in a neighbourhood of narrow 19th-century streets – when I say narrow, they are almost exactly three cars wide, one parked on each side and one driving slowly down the middle. Although the traffic is slow – fear for mirrors sees to that! – there is simply no room for anything else. How to reduce that shear amount of metal – parked as much as moving – is something I don’t see either integration or segregation addressing as yet.

      “we need protected paths *where there is a lot of motor traffic and / or fast motor traffic*.” It’s good to point this out – that the “Dutch/Danish/etc” system is not about paths on every single road. In fact, I think it was on this blog some time ago that someone said something like “The Dutch meaning of ‘roads’ is like the English ‘main road’ as distinct to street,” but it’s a point that’s IMO very little made by supporters of segregated facilities.

      • I think we’re agreed on everything here except the very last item: I don’t see anybody saying there should be protected cycle paths on quiet streets, or that all cycle traffic should follow busy ones. Perhaps it seems that way because the current big issue in cycle infrastructure is whether or not to have protected cycle paths on busy roads, and so that’s what all the noise is about.

  8. mikey bikey says:

    Yep, Exhibition road is a prime example of dangerous, overly expensive and fake – ‘shared space’. Proven by the kerbed island around each lamppost, to stop vehicles hitting them, whereas people only get occasional bollards. Street furniture valued over human beings.
    Proposed degradation of Cycle SubLowWays is another. Big fanfare, pretty pictures, fake ‘consultations’, then planned narrower, kinked, and broken by gaps. Ech!

  9. patrick field says:

    “Just as it is natural to want to be able to make progress on foot, or on bike, or while driving, so the flip side of that coin, for empathetic human beings, is that it is natural to feel uncomfortable at obstructing the progress of others.”
    How does your natural(?) principle explain the popularity of private cars for personal travel? How much time does a human whose default mode is riding alone in a five, six or seven-seater saloon spend worrying about being in the way? Why do empathetic people choose things like this for everyday suburban travel?
    Most people are most comfortable doing what they think they are supposed to do. Fashions change.

    • Dan B says:

      When people answer the “why do you have a 4×4 for urban travel?” question, personal and passenger safety is pretty much at the top of the list. Some people are feeling unsafe in ‘normal’ cars in the current environment. Why? Why is this not being looked at, and corrected?

      Safety is a huge issue when it comes to travel. People feel unsafe on the roads, on public transport and on bikes. We as a society seem to think this is a ‘personal’ problem with personal solutions, despite the harm these ‘solutions’ cause to society as a whole. Why are we as a society so stupid and short-sighted?

    • Because cycling for trips of around 1-2 miles in towns and cities in Britain is an intimidating and unpleasant experience for most people. That’s why. The car is the least worst alternative.

      • patrick field says:

        If the theory that almost everyone is a precipitous pre-cyclist – only using heavy motor-vehicles as the least worst alternative to cycle-travel – is correct, who is doing the intimidating?
        We may optimistically anticipate that the programmes of driverless vehicles won’t have an ‘intimidate’ setting and will be intelligent enough to understand the network-benefits of steady speeds and courtesy.

    • pm says:

      That’s an interesting point, but I don’t agree with your take on it.

      A crucial point, surely, is that there’s a HUGE difference between the level of discomfort you feel being ‘in the way’ when you are exposed and vulnerable as a cyclist (or a pedestrian, for that matter) and being so when you are acoustically isolated and safely enclosed in an armoured metal box.

      Another point is probably the difference between in-groups and out-groups. Just as a woman might feel more uncomfortable about possibly annoying a group of men, or a lone black person might about upsetting a crowd of white strangers, than a man or a white person might in the same situation. Motorists tolerate more from ‘their own’ than they do from the ‘other’, just as with other groups.

  10. patrick field says:

    “At root is an almost umbilical tethering of cycling as a mode of transport with the convenience of motoring; every kind of policy with regard to cycling is viewed through the prism of how it might affect driving.”

    Motor-dependence is space-hungry, its primary victims – who own and drive cars – often vocal and defensive. In current conditions, practical campaigning for cycling as a mode of transport on urban or suburban streets almost always demands engagement with the convenience of motoring and car-parking.

    • Mark Williams says:

      This is probably why practical campaigning has always ended up getting nowhere and capitulating at every `engagement’. ‘Twas ever thus—even before `current conditions’ when cyclists vastly outnumbered motorists. I’ll opt for the principled sort of campaigning if it’s all the same to you (or not)… It can’t do any worse!

  11. congokid says:

    In the DT article there’s rather a giveaway of prevailing attitudes in shared spaces from Graham Parkhurst, ‘head of an academic research programme in Bristol and part of one of four official pilot programmes’, who said “Another problem is in shared spaces where cars move slowly and allow pedestrians to thread their way through. The motorist imposes a little bit of presence in order to keep moving, there will be eye contact.”

    The ways in which this ‘presence’ manifests itself in are usually revving engines, close passes, tailgating, shouting, gesticulating, flashing headlights and use of the horn.

    In other words, vulnerable road users can expect to be bullied off shared spaces they happen to be using.

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